Backing Uzbek peace process, US hopes to check China, Russia in Afghanistan
Could Tashkent be the city of peacemaking for Afghanistan, as it was for India and Pakistan after the 1965 War, when they signed the Tashkent Declaration on 10 January 1966, to resolve the 1965 Indo-Pak War?
The theatre of war has now shifted to Afghanistan. Realizing the security concerns across the border, Uzbekistan has reoriented its foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Tashkent played host, again, to a peacemaking process, for Afghanistan, under the aegis of an international conference on March 26 – 27, 2018.
Several peacemaking processes like the Kabul Process, Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) have been set up to resolve the Afghan conundrum. Uzbekistan is a member of each of these processes and plays an important role in Afghan peace-making.
Uzbekistan established the “Six Plus Two Group on Afghanistan,” extending strategic cooperation with global players engaged in peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping for Afghanistan. It reopened the Friendship Bridge between the two countries in 2002 and provided an airbase, Karshi-Khanabad and Termez, for the US and Germany respectively, to assist the ISAF fight against terrorism. It had also allowed passage for supply lines of the Northern Distribution Network.
When President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in Uzbekistan in 2016, he reoriented his foreign policy to a neighbourhood first policy, with Central Asia including Afghanistan as a top priority. To improve bilateral ties, he appointed a Special Representative for Afghanistan.
Hosting the international conference for Afghanistan validates his Neighbourhood First policy. The theme of the conference on Afghanistan was, ‘Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Connectivity.’ About 20 countries had participated in the conference. Despite the absence of the Taliban, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan hope to strengthen regional cooperation to end the two decades long Afghanistan conflict.
This Tashkent Declaration stressed that the peace process be Afghan-led and Afghan built, as per resolutions of the United Nations. It also urged the Afghan government to ensure integration of the armed opposition group, the Taliban, into the political life of the country. The group should be acknowledged and recognized as a legitimate political force to ensure its instrumental role in the establishment of peace. The participating members strongly opposed all manifestations of terrorism, without distinctions. The members also recognized threats like transnational terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime as common challenges to stability and sustainable development not only of Afghanistan, but worldwide.
However, peace continues to elude Afghanistan, which has been making efforts to bring on board the recalcitrant Taliban, which refuses to engage with the Afghan authorities. Recently, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban permission to open an office in Afghanistan and offered to accept them as a political force, an offer they declined. Instead, the Taliban expressed their desire to talk only to the US officials, believing only they could help to end the protracted Afghan War.
The major challenge of Afghan peacemaking is the geopolitical perspective. The US has its own geopolitical goals for engineering the peace process by Uzbekistan; it will open the gateway for Afghanistan to the new world market. By encouraging an alliance between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, access routes through Central Asia would be available, lessening Kabul’s dependence on Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. It will revamp the Northern Distribution Network to supply US-NATO bases in Afghanistan, by sidelining Russia and Pakistan. Finally, the US would successfully stymie the great game actors like China and Russia from Central Asia.
With the Tashkent Process, the US anticipates that China’s recent moves on Afghanistan could be weakened. Recent Chinese initiatives include the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign-minister level forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (working group with Afghanistan) and the decision to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan, integrating that country with the Belt and Road Initiative.
The latest meeting of senior officials at the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process on April 19, 2018, in which an Uzbek foreign ministry delegation participated, failed to produce any fresh ideas. Participant countries discussed issues like security and the regional economic cooperation and the strengthening of confidence-building measures for the stabilization and socio-economic recovery of Afghanistan.
Despite these peace-making initiatives and ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, terrorist attacks have increased exponentially. According to report of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), during 2017, 3,438 people died, 7,015 were injured and 10,453 civilian casualties took place. US President Donald Trump’s new South Asian Policy has also failed to show any upturn in the Afghan security situation.
Notwithstanding the several peacemaking initiatives, socio-economic challenges, ethno-sectarian disputes, organized crimes and criminality, killing of soldiers and civilians, attacks of green over blue, exponentially growing rate of desertion among the Afghan soldiers, increasing control over geographical areas by the non-state actors, and absence of peace in Afghanistan are some major existential threats which have multiplied over the last two decades.
Until realpolitik and mediation of third parties prevail, the Tashkent Conference’s idealistic goals for Afghanistan, like ‘peace, security, and regional connectivity,’ would be like castles in the air.